BWW Review: WEST SIDE STORY, a Classic Through and Through
Manila, Philippines--Touted as "Broadway's greatest dance musical," "West Side Story," the international tour, opened in Manila to a crowd of old and new fans, and the result is both exhilarating and, to some degree, bifurcating.
For one, the Manila leg, which boasts an all-American cast, is an archival production that stays genuinely true to the swagger and grit of Arthur Laurents' script set in the 1950's Upper West Side New York, where gangs fight over control of the streets. This and other premises sit well with the sixty and seventy-something fans.
On the other hand, the characters' dialogues, loaded with street slang, leave millennials in the crowd snickering awkwardly as Laurents' dated coined street talk (he strived to avoid this when the show opened in August 1957 by inventing his own street lingo) is palpably pronounced for these social media age citizens.
However, make no mistake about it, the beauty and substance of this masterpiece remain intact and undiminished despite. This 60th-anniversary homage to the classic deserves a pat on the back for its inexorable attitude to steer clear of the "reimagined" trend that has swept most musical revivals of the present times. This then reinforces "West Side Story's" claim as a classic through and through, and it is poised to remain so in the years to come.
'Romeo and Juliet' in Dance
"West Side Story" is a retelling of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, whose plot is as fresh and bloody as today's cold murder of Heather Heyer and the attack on others in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia. Call it unfortunate coincidence, but Shakespeare's and Laurents' decrying of hate, racial discrimination, and meaningless juvenile violence has not sounded any worse than it is now. "West Side Story's" prophetic sad story keeps its relevance afloat amidst a plethora of modern musicals with substance to boot.
During its initial Broadway run, this musical was considered groundbreaking. It bravely swung away from the traditional mold of an American musical--it did have (and still has) a sad ending!
The focus of the story is the rivalry between the Jets (white immigrants) and Sharks (Puerto Rican immigrants) juxtaposed with the romance between Tony, a former Jets member--played so splendidly by Kevin Hack, and Maria, Sharks leader Bernardo's sister--played admirably by Jenna Burns.
Key to the musical's narrative is the company of dancers, who must have the ability to dance, act, and sing at the same time, to successfully reincarnate Jerome Robbins' acclaimed choreography that features the bloody fights in highly stylized and nuanced numbers, originally conceived to lessen the impact of such violence on sensitive Broadway audiences. The company of dancers that graced the Theatre at Solaire are sinuous and graceful, their movements successfully strengthen the thread of storytelling, executed with crystalline clarity.
Yes, this is a dance musical, but the powerful message is not lost or diminished in its choreographed translation. The production numbers (The Dance at the Gym, The Rumble, Somewhere) are as unambiguous as the musical's spoken lines.
Bernstein and Sondheim's Score
In 1947, Robbins approached Leonard Bernstein and Laurents on this project they described as a "lyric theater." The idea of writing his first musical thrilled Laurents, while Bernstein wanted the project in operatic form. Along came Stephen Sondheim, a virtual unknown at that time, who wrote the lyrics to Bernstein's music.
The staying power of "West Side Story" lies in the memorable score by the formidable duo who have left quite an impression in the history of Broadway musicals. 60 years after, the songs Maria, Something's Coming, Tonight, One Hand, One Heart, and Somewhere are still considered the standard of excellence and have remained sing-able and timeless.
Hack, Burns and Company
It may be ironic to note that the biggest roles of this dance musical, Tony and Maria, are actually not danced. This somehow proves to be advantageous to the actors playing them as they can focus more on their singing and acting.
Kevin Hack as Tony is perfect-pitched and downright charming, his versatility magnificently showcased in his solo and duet numbers. In Something's Coming, he is an epitome of teenage compulsion and audacity; his Maria is a rendition of joyful outburst and longing, and his duets with Jenna Burns (Tonight, One Hand, One Heart) are simply marvelous. Hack whispers, whimpers, and glides in enviable vocal virtuosity.
Rarely does one encounter a leading lady role in a musical that is overpowered by the leading man's. Burns' Maria is such role. Overall, Burns scorches in most of her musical numbers, her powerful soprano voice reverberating in the theatre with commanding brilliance, but she does not cut across compelling in her highly dramatic scenes. Her "Killer! Killer! Killer!" line was met with incredulity and sniggers from the young viewers, and her moment in the finale (Tony's death) elicited the same response.
Keely Beirne as Anita is quite a solid character, and together with Kelsey Elisabeth Holley (Consuelo) and the rest of the Sharks girls provide the much-needed comic relief, lest the show tips to a depressing rut. Holley is funny and smart, her antics will get you floored every time. And oh, that blonde wig! Don't say I didn't warn you.
Robbins and Bernstein Legacies
Manila audiences will be thrilled to know that Robbins' and Bernstein's proteges--Joey McKneely (director, choreographer) and Donald Chan (musical supervisor, principal conductor)--are the creative forces behind this revival.
McKneely, who studied under Robbins, has successfully melded all the elements--those glorious sets and lights included--to make this musical as delectable and powerful as ever. Chan, who studied under Bernstein, sees to McKneely's intent, providing the necessary musical supervisory hand to help steer the show to its right direction. Bernstein's music sounds as crisp as it did when it charmed fans a long time ago. In McKneely and Chan, Bernstein's and Robbins' legacies live on.
A Message of Hope
When asked what could be the central message of the show in our times, Kelsey Elisabeth Holley has this to say:
"In the production, we are culturally diverse. But we don't see our race, our skin color when we do the show. We are here as one, as one theater, to bring this important message of love and acceptance to our audience."
"West Side Story" is an enduring classic you need to see regardless of your generation. Its beauty and message will leave you breathless and reflective, if not transformed.
Presented by Globe Live, "West Side Story" is a Michael Brenner production, produced by BB Promotion GmbH in association with Sundance Productions, Inc. NY, Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, and David Atkins Enterprises. The show's promoter is Concertus Manila.
"West Side Story" plays The Theatre at Solaire (Solaire Resort and Casino along ASEAN Avenue in Paranaque City) until Sunday, August 27.
To buy tickets (P1,500-P7,000), visit TicketWorld.com.ph.
Photos: Oliver Oliveros